Developments of the Music for Solo Piano in the First Half of the Twentieth Century


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The 20th century was a turning point for classical music where the ideologies and concept of music making became extremely diverse and saw several changes, from the emergence of late Romantic style of Sergei Rachmaninoff, Impressionism of Claude Debussy and Maurice Ravel, Modernism, and to the Neoclassicism of middle period Igor Stravinsky. Perhaps one of the most distinctive features of the music written in this time period was the wider use of dissonance. However, in the early part of the century, the music written was an extension of 19th-century Romantic music. The 20th century saw a rapid succession of cultural revolutions and counter-revolutions, which eventually resulted in the boundaries and the possibilities of artistic expression being explored to the outer limits which reflected greatly on the development of music for solo piano in the era. The 20th century saw the dissolution of the traditional tonality and transformation of the very foundation of tonal language. The emergence of Modernism, which, to a great extent rejects tonality and breaks away from the concept of a tonal center in music gave birth to atonalism and polytonality. Composers such as Schoenberg and Debussy started to break away from the triadic structure of writing harmonies to writing extended ambitious chords. Arnold Schoenberg was one of the first composers to have the tonal framework of writing music. He developed the twelve-tone technique of composition which intended to be a replacement for traditional tonal pitch organization. Under his guidance were Anton Webern and Alban Berg who also developed and furthered the use of the twelve-tone system and were noteworthy for their use of the technique in their own right. The collective of these three came to be known, as the Schoenberg ‘trinity’ or the Second Viennese School. This name was created to imply that this ‘New Music’ would have the same effect as the ‘First Viennese School’ of Haydn, Mozart, and Beethoven.

In order to discuss the developments of the music for solo piano in the first half of the twentieth century, references to three composers and musical examples shall be made. Reflets Dans L’eau by the French composer Claude Debussy which provides a contrast to the Russian works Moment Musicaux Op. 16 No. 4 (Sergei Rachmaninoff) and Sonata No. 5 Op. 53 (Alexander Scriabin).

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Claude Debussy

On August 22, 1862, Achille-Claude Debussy was born in Saint-Germain-en-Laye, France. ( Editors) At an early age, Debussy showed his fondness towards the piano, and by the age of 7, he was enrolled for piano lessons. He joined the Paris Conservatory when he was 11 where his teachers and fellow students recognized his talent but often found his attempts at creative musical innovation quite strange. In the year 1884, when he was just 22 years old, Debussy entered his cantata L’Enfant prodigue (The Prodigal Child) in the Prix de Rome, a competition for composers. He won the competition and this granted him the opportunity to study in the Italian capital for three years, though he returned to Paris after two years. While in Rome, he studied the music of German composer Richard Wagner, specifically his opera Tristan und Isolde. The Wagnerian influence on Debussy’ work were quite evident and lasting, but despite this, Debussy generally kept a distance away from the ostentation of Wagner’s opera in his own works.” ( Editors) In the transition from Romanticism to Modernism, Debussy held an important position in musical history at a time when Impressionism and Symbolism were emerging in fin de siècle France. (Tita 2007 1) Debussy was aware that his compositional desires and harmonic desires would only be restricted by traditional forms that relied on former tonal practice. This led to the realization of creating newer forms. Debussy was always keen on attaining a more intuitive art which handed more control and freedom to the mind of the composer. He patronized the idea of breaking away from both rigid formal type of earlier music and standard harmonies throughout his letters and essays from the turn of the century onwards. Debussy’s use of modes had a drastic effect on his harmony. Modality is often considered to be an important feature of Debussy’s music. The use of these modes had the effect of breaking down the traditional tonal system and of forming a new one based on new scale formations. The whole-tone scale was one of Debussy’s favorite, where all the consecutive intervals were the same.

Reflets dans l’eau was composed in 1905 and is the first piece of the first volume of Debussy’s “Images”. Debussy himself wrote about these set of works to the publisher stating ‘I think I may say without undue pride, that I believe these three pieces will live and will take [their] place in piano literature…’ (Siculiana) This could very well be justified acknowledging the fact that these pieces use extremely non-traditional harmonic vocabulary although the musical forms used are quite standard for the time. Reflets dans l’eau is considered to be an impressionistic piece as is the case with the majority of Debussy’s works.

Some of the typical features of Debussy’s middle and late piano works include several brief melody statements and climaxes that are more close to being glimpses of music than full ideas. Debussy’s intentions with Reflets dans l’eau were not just to imitate water sounds but to focus more on the imagery of reflections of water, that is to say, the pictures that float and not necessarily make any sound. This leads to greater challenges where the more obvious ways such as mere bubbles, trickles or raindrops aren’t an option to emulate water. This piece seems to be more focused towards the motion of water where it creates an image of the water not being quite still, then becomes swift which then slows down in pace again. Debussy made several discoveries in this part of his life about the piano such as the new tone colors of which Reflets dans l’eau is a great example of. This piece is a part of greater achievements that Debbusy claimed through the instrument. As said by Howat, “In orthodox terms, the piece’s construction is irregular, best described as an unusual species of rondo form built on two recurring motifs, A and B. A begins and ends the piece, defining a rondo outline with principal returns in bars 35 and 71. It then returns in bar 81, marking the beginning of the coda. B is a more melodic development of A, beginning with A in retrograde. B’s appearances form contrasting episodes in the rondo scheme, with principle entries in bars 24, 50 and 78. Of those three episodes the final one is very short and the central one much the more important; after its entry in bar 50 B dominates the entire climactic section until bar 70.” (Ex.1) (Siculiana)

As said by Howat, “In orthodox terms, the piece’s construction is irregular, best described as an unusual species of rondo form built on two recurring motifs, A and B. A begins and ends the piece, defining a rondo outline with principal returns in bars 35 and 71. It then returns in bar 81, marking the beginning of the coda. B is a more melodic development of A, beginning with A in retrograde. B’s appearances form contrasting episodes in the rondo scheme, with principle entries in bars 24, 50 and 78. Of those three episodes the final one is very short and the central one much the more important; after its entry in bar 50 B dominates the entire climactic section until bar 70.” (Ex.1)

With regard to blur in the form, Howat adds the following: “In itself this thematic ABABABA sequence in not indistinct; what blurs the form is that the tonal plan and dynamic shape, especially in the later part of the piece, follow a course quite independent of the thematic sequence, marking a series of separate musical turning points, particularly important at bars 43, 48, 56 and 69. This is the reason why the term “rondo” by itself is an inadequate description of the piece’s processes. What is much clearer about the piece is its shape – dramatic and dynamic shape – as opposed to its more academic formal aspects.”

And finally regarding the use of tonality in the overall structure of the piece, Howat comments: “In “Reflets” the actual keys enunciated form a surprisingly classical sequence of D flat (D flat) – E flat – A flat7 – D flat. However, the brevity with which some of them are defined draws attention to the bars where the tonality is discernible (mostly bars 1-8, 15-16, 35-42, 56-58 and finally 69 onwards), setting the intervening chromaticism off in dramatic fashion. The piece’s climax manages to combine the best of both worlds, starting with a surprise modulation to E flat before making a further crescendo into some of the piece’s most intense dissonances.”

Sergei Rachmaninoff

Sergei Rachmaninoff was born on 20th March, 1873 in Russia. He was one of the last known composers of the tradition of Russian romanticism and was a leading piano virtuoso of his time. At an early point, he was destined to be an army officer but later on when his father deserted the family and his cousin Aleksandr Siloti, came to the rescue that he ventured into the field of music. He was sent for training under a noted teacher and pianist Kikolay Zerev in Moscow and for his general education and theoretical subjects in music, he became a pupil at the Moscow Conservatory. At 19, he won the gold medal for his one act opera “Aleko” and graduated from the conservatory. (Seroff, Taruskin)

Rachmaninoff also played a role as a conductor at the Bolshoi Theatre at the time of the Russian Revolution of 1905. He wasn’t keen on getting involved with the politics of the revolution and was mostly a passive observer, he moved to Dresden with his family. While he was there, he wrote Piano Concerto No. 3 in D minor. This piano concerto requires great virtuosity from the pianist; its last movement is a bravura section as dazzling as any ever composed. Later he appeared to win Philadelphia and Chicago as a conductor and received equal success interpreting his own symphonic compositions. After the Russian Revolution of 1917, Rachmaninoff decided upon going on his second trip outside his native country, dividing his time between residences in Switzerland and the United States. He lived a rather isolated life with a small circle of friends and his family. This could have possibly had a devastating effect on his creative ability which led to him just rewriting some of his earlier works during this period. Although Rachmaninoff’s music was mostly written in the 20th century, his creative thinking remains firmly entrenched in the 19th-century musical idiom. ‘He was, in effect, the final expression of the tradition embodied by Tchaikovsky—a melodist of Romantic dimensions still writing in an era of explosive change and experimentation’ (Seroff, Taruskin)

Rachmaninoff’s Moment Musicaux No. 4 reveals resemblance to Chopin’s Revolutionary Etude in the taxing left-hand figure place throughout and it seems likely that No. 6 was inspired by Chopin’s Etude No. 12, Op. 25, known as the ‘Ocean Etude.” Moment Musicaux Op. 16, is a set of 6 works written for solo piano composed by Rachmaninoff from October to December 1896. These works reproduce the musical form characteristics of previous musical eras. The forms are the nocturne, song without words, Barcarolle, virtuoso étude, and theme and variations. (Andy Feldbau) The six pieces of opus 16 are profoundly rice and complex works, these pieces are essentially a culmination of Rachmaninoff’s knowledge of the piano and mastery of its virtuosic treatment at the time of their composition.

The various Parts/Movements of Moment Musicaux are:

  • Andantino in B flat minor
  • Allegretto in E flat minor
  • Andante cantabile in B minor
  • Presto in E minor
  • Adagio sostenuto in D flat major
  • Maestoso in C major

The Andantino section consists of a longing melody played over an accompaniment of triplets that immediately hints towards a twilight setting which makes it a nocturne. Several elements of variations are also noticeable in the principal melody’s reshaping throughout the course of this piece, however, towards the end of the piece it comes back to a haunting conclusion forming the coda. The second part, Allegretto proves a sharp contrast to the lyrical Andantino, and is evocative of the preludes of Fredric Chopin. The constant motion created by the sextuplets whirls and it is only towards the end that the tempest subsides as the tempo slows down the piece ends on four resonant chords. The third piece adds another layer of contrast to the set. It could be argued its a fusion of a song without words and a funeral march. The rich middle register of the piano is used very thoughtfully to play the mournful melody over the resonant bass. When the same melody returns, it is heard over a dramatic staccato bass line which is played in octaves.

The fourth addition to the set being the Presto returns to the spirit of the Allegretto. This is the etude with the taxing left-hand figure and has a striking resemblance to Chopin’s ‘Ocean Etude’. The introduction to this piece is in fortissimo where the left hand creates a thick texture consisting of chromatic sextuplets. The main melody is a ‘rising quasi-military’ idea, scattered between replications of the left-hand figure, the mostly two-note melody being a strong unifying element. The middle section shrinks down the overall sound and consists of contrary motion with falling figures in the right hand and rising scales on the left. The third section is where the piece reaches the epitome of its pace and hence is marked Piu vivo which translates to more life. The texture of the piece thickens drastically by this point and to increase the intensity of the ending the technique of rapidly shifting octaves (registral displacement) is used. Finally, the ending brings the sweeping reiteration of the theme that closes in a heavy E minor chord.

The next piece comes rather as a surprise to the listener coming from the Presto is the Adagio. “A barcarolle, it is a gently lyrical piece devoid of the flamboyant gestures previously heard, and requiring a sensitivity of the performer, particularly in making the persistent accompaniment of triplets interesting and in placing proper emphasis on the correct notes in its chordal melody.” (DuBose 2012). Finally, what is considered to be the most difficult piece of the set is the Maestoso which brings the end to the set of six pieces. This piece demands great stamina and mental strength from the pianist. The passionate melody, surrounded by gigantic chords, brings the entirety of the set to a colossal conclusion.

Alexander Scriabin

Alexander Scriabin was a Russian composer born on 25 December, 1872 in Moscow, Russia. He was known for his Piano and orchestral music which comprised of unusual harmonies through which he endeavored to explore musical symbolism. His reputation stems from his sensitive, exquisitely polished piano music. Scriabin was trained as a soldier and he studied music at the same time. He got enrolled in the Moscow Conservatory in the year 1888 where he studied piano and composition. Soon after he graduated from the conservatory, he devoted himself entirely to composition and settled in Switzerland in 1904. During 1906 to 1907 Scriabin gave concerts with Safonov and the conductor Modest Altschuler in the United States and in 1908 he frequented the theosophical circle in Brussels.

Through the progression of Alexander Scriabin’s (b. 1872) ten piano sonatas (completed between 1892 and 1913), we hear this Russian Composer’s movement from Romantic, Chopin-esque influences to a highly developed individualized compositional style. In making this progression, there is no doubt among scholars that Scriabin’s own developing Theosophical beliefs were a major influence. (Elizabeth 1985 13-14)

Sonata No. 5 is Scriabin’s first of ten sonatas which reflects his inherent qualities and visions as a composer. Written as one movement, the entire sonata is ordered according to the traditional formal sections of exposition, development, and recapitulation with an introduction and coda.

At an early stage Scriabin’s style, to some extent, could be classified as Romantic, however, with this sonata, he moves away from those romantic tendencies and fully embraces atonality, with a slight hold over traditional harmony which essentially bridges the tonal spectrum. Scriabin’s Sonata No. 5 opens with a quick introductory theme after a brief excerpt of verses from his “Poem of Ecstasy,”. The opening has an expressive tempo marking “Allegro. Impetuoso. Con stravaganza.” and a key signature (F# major) that eventually raises some curiosity. (Philipp) The key signature raises curiosity because in the introduction itself pitches E# and A# are consistently marked with natural accidentals, thus if a major or minor harmonic framework were to be implied, it would most likely be E major.

The opening of the Sonata sounds heavy because of the smoggy character of the piano’s lower register. More than a harmony, this comes across as a gesture. Then, there’s a sudden shift in the mood where a thunderous trill which swirls up to the high end of the piano leads to a place where the notes played sound more ambiguous and create a sense of uncertainty, the motifs here are rather light weighted potentially because of the higher register of the piano and they seem to be just floating in a dream-like manner. The sound eventually crescendos with easy and delightful spirit until turned frantic, which intuited the downward chord pattern that effectively actuates the descent leading to a laggard end. The section right after seems to be unstructured possibly because it often changes outside itself, growing largely on spontaneity rather than on ideas that reoccur. Finally, with the mottled utilization of the upper register of the piano, the piece comes to an abrupt end. This Sonata consists of some vivid motifs, great potential for the richness of expression, a combination of these two leads to the creation of a very unique piece of music that is unlike anything heard before.


In conclusion, the 20th century saw a rapid succession of cultural revolutions and counter-revolutions, which eventually resulted in the boundaries and the possibilities of artistic expression being explored to the outer limits. With the composers of the time being more inclined towards what they can do with music instead of restricting themselves to previous norms of music making, new musical languages arose which reflected greatly on the development of music for solo piano in the era.


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